In an accepting an award from the Space Transportation Association during a Capitol Hill event this morning, Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV), the outgoing chairman of the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, immediately addressed the one issue on everyone’s minds about NASA’s funding for the coming year. “I don’t know, I don’t think anybody else knows” if the lame-duck Congress will pass an omnibus appropriations bill, rolling up the current separate appropriations bills, or instead extend a continuing resolution (CR), perhaps for the entire fiscal year. “It could go either way.”
Mollohan had a clear preference for an omnibus that would incorporate “all the hard work” the appropriations committee’s staff had put into the legislation so far. “My intellect tells me that we should get an omnibus,” he said, adding that the outcome may depend on what will happen in the Senate, where the endorsement of a ban on earmarks by minority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) “was not a good omen.”
“A CR would be bad for NASA,” he said, because they generally don’t support the start of new activities. He did acknowledge that a CR could permit “anomalies” that would support new programs, but he said even in such a case “the new direction enacted in the authorization bill is likely to be delayed as well.” (He added that the NASA authorization bill that was signed into law last month “was one of this Congress’s real legislative achievements.”)
Mollohan praised a number of NASA programs developed during his tenure in Congress, from the Earth Observing System to the International Space Station to the Hubble Space Telescope and Mars Exploration Rovers. However, he did warn the agency and its supporters about a mismatch between missions and resources. “We’re still trying to do too much with too little. The accountants and the visionaries are still arm wrestling,” he said. “The cost of developing and launching satellites has gotten high that we’re now somewhat dangerously relying on what you might call ‘design life plus,'” a reference to stretching out the lifetimes of operational satellites well beyond their design life because of delayed replacements. He also cautioned against being “much too dependent on the Russians” for access to the ISS.
Turning to exploration, Mollohan said that “we need to break out of low Earth orbit.” During the budget debate of the last year, he said, “one theme emerged: the Congress, reflecting the aspirations of the American people, want an aggressive human exploration program.” He said he found similar interest in both entrepreneurial and established space companies he’s met with. “These aspirations, and this enthusiasm, must be given an outlet through government and commercial space activities.”
Later, though, in the Q&A period after his speech, Mollohan acknowledged the difficulty in crafting a strong new direction for NASA. “NASA policy is very much developed by committee,” he said. “There’s no defining voice that says, ‘This is the way it’s going to be.’ That’s evident from how this exploration issue has been playing out this year.” While the administration wanted to go in one direction, some in Congress resisted, “so we end up with this indecision; an unstable policy area that still is undefined.”
At the end of the session, Mollohan praised his likely successor as chair of the CJS subcommittee, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), the current ranking member. “Frank Wolf is just wonderful to work with,” he said. “I hope he gets this committee. He’s very appropriate for this job.”